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What Was the Enlightenment and How Did It Influence the Politics of the 19th Century?

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What was the Enlightenment and how did it influence the politics of the 19th century?
The Enlightenment was, in its simplest sense, a body of writers and writings of 18th century Europe which advocated reason and the belief in human rationality above all else and challenged long-standing values and institutions which were based on traditional and religious beliefs. The political ideas of the Enlightenment, which can be best understood against the backdrop of 18th century absolutism and the dominance of Christian world-views, denounced the ‘divine right of kings’ and called for reform in governance (Gieben and Hall, 1992:23). These were the ideas that influenced 19th century politics, and gradually led to the switch from all-powerful monarchies to the democracies of the modern world.

In this essay I shall give a brief overview of the Enlightenment whilst focusing mainly on its political ideas and put these ideas in context by describing the political landscape of the time. I will then discuss how these political ideas shaped the politics of the 19th century. I will limit myself to looking at the influence of the Enlightenment on European politics as that is where its affect was most sharply felt and was the main location for the Enlightenment movement (Gieben and Hall,1992:72).

The Enlightenment was the emergence of new ways of thinking which came about mainly in 18th century Europe, although Enlightenment ideas can also be seen in the 17th century, for example in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These ways of thinking championed empiricism, reason and universalism; claiming that knowledge can only be gained from what we experience, that all human beings are rational and should base their knowledge on reason and experience, and that these principles should be applied to all situations. Although most Enlightenment thinkers were in favour of...

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